• Financial abuse and exploitation involving international students in the housing market is common. (Getty Images )
As we were about to part, the agent said, “Let’s get a drink”. I was stunned and mumbled something about needing to go. I did not return his calls.
By
S.Shin

8 Aug 2018 - 12:29 PM  UPDATED 10 Aug 2018 - 10:36 AM

While the housing market in Sydney is tough, it’s especially brutal for migrant international students. They don't speak English fluently as locals, do not have housing assistance from their universities, few social or family connections and little awareness of their rights. This leaves them - especially young women - vulnerable to exploitation, sexual harassment and financial abuse as they pay exorbitant rates for bad and cramped housing.

When I was searching for housing in Sydney to move in to with my two friends, also international students, who were overseas at the time, nothing could have prepared me for the onslaught of derelict houses. Some were falling apart (literally – one place was leaning sideways to the point where the cabinets threatened to fall over), had peeling and mouldy wallpaper, dripping taps, and stairs that creaked and strained if one stepped on them too hard. 

Nothing could have prepared me for the onslaught of derelict houses. 

I met with 13 different real estate agents – some indifferent, some frazzled and waving bits of paper in front of eager students with accented English. Then there was the male, 40-something agent who showed me a unit on the third floor of an ancient apartment in Ultimo. 

The tiny lift groaned and creaked and the lights flickered as we rode up to the unit in question. To break the silence, and seeing as I was the only person in attendance at this open house, I asked him some questions about the unit. He then asked me the questions I was so familiar with as a young Asian woman and an international student – where was I from, what was I studying, why was my English so good? 

I don't mind being a renter, except for this one thing
I’ve heard the jokes about lawyers, and used-car salesmen. I know what people think of taxidermists. But, seriously, what is it with real estate agents?

As he showed me around the two bedroom unit where he insisted that our third housemate could live in the dining room/kitchen “comfortably”, he began to ask more personal questions. I was eager to present myself as a model renter and answered these questions in a friendly manner, although they had nothing to do with my renting situation. 

As we were about to part, he said, “Let’s get a drink sometime so we can talk about the house”. He already had my number, which I had given him for the purposes of contacting me about the open house. I was stunned and mumbled something about needing to go. I did not return his calls. 

As we were about to part, he said, “Let’s get a drink sometime so we can talk about the house”. He already had my number, which I had given him for the purposes of contacting me about the open house. I was stunned and mumbled something about needing to go. I did not return his calls. 

I eventually did find a place for the three of us, a glorified mouse den without a letterbox, but it was just affordable for our underpaid selves and close to the university we were attending. I noticed that the front door was only a thin wooden door with glass panes leading into a busy street, and with only one flimsy lock. I mentioned this to our real estate agent when we moved in but did not hear back from her. 

That is, until we got broken into. 

I called the agent and demanded that bars be placed on our windows and that a security door be installed. It was eventually done, after a long six weeks. 

There are other stories too, including coming down the stairs of my new place to find the agent who asked me for a drink loitering outside, who just “happened” to be there. He was not with the same agency as the one we were using for our place, so I was shocked and more than a little afraid that he managed to find out where we lived.

The landlord visited our house a number of times without announcing himself or calling in advance, because “it’s fine if I don’t enter the house – just the backyard.” He would potter about near the front steps, keeping an eye on us through the windows. 

There are stories that other international students have told me, involving real estate agents who refuse to return bond money despite having had the place professionally cleaned and who say they do not to understand the tenants’ English when they ask for things to be done within the house. There are also landlords who privately advertise on Facebook pages such as Inner West Sydney Housemates, charging $200 a week for a bunk bed in a room that contains three other individuals. 

There are stories that other international students have told me, involving real estate agents who refuse to return bond money and who say they do not to understand the tenants’ English when they ask for things to be done within the house.

Who can international students turn to for advice about such things, especially when they are not fluent English speakers? Australian universities, in my experience, do not offer such guidance. 

International students are migrants who use education overseas as a means of bettering ourselves, and for some of us it’s a way of rescuing ourselves from toxic environments in our home countries. I personally know individuals who have chosen to study abroad as a means of escaping misogyny and queer phobia, among other things. While such students are privileged to do so, needing a place to live is an unavoidable fact of life. 

International education is big business with Australia making in excess of $28 billion from this industry. International students should have services provided to them by the universities that reflect that investment. Some of these changes can be simple as universities providing advisors who assist international students with housing and culture shock, better housing policies and culturally appropriate legal support so students do not fall through the cracks and become vulnerable prey in Sydney’s exploitative rental market. 

S. Shin is a freelance writer. You can follow her on Twitter @s_sh_shin.

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